Action News Jax Investigates: Combatting chronic absenteeism in local schools

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — More and more children are not attending school, and it’s happening nationwide.

Chronic absenteeism is so rampant, that leaders in Washington are even working to find solutions.


Action News Jax Investigates examined the issue in Duval County Public Schools, our largest local school district.

Anchor Tenikka Hughes investigates why thousands of students aren’t showing up for school, the work underway to get them back in class, and why everyone in our entire community should care about this issue.

What is chronic absenteeism?

To understand the problem, let’s start by defining it. A student is considered chronically absent when they miss at least 10% of days in a school year, excused or unexcused.

In most districts, the minimum amount of instruction time is 180 days, so that’s at least 18 days of class time students are missing.

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Data from the American Enterprise Institute shows more than a quarter of public school students nationwide were chronically absent last school year, a 15% increase since before the pandemic.

The Florida Department of Education reported that 30.9% percent of students were chronically absent last school year. In Duval County, our largest local school district, 41.9% percent of students were chronically absent last school year.

Local pastor Luke Benjamin is passionate about education.

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“It’s sad. I mean, for me, when you think about those stats, you’re realizing how much kids are missing,” he said.

Benjamin is married to an educator, the father of two school-aged girls, and vice president of the Highlands Elementary School PTA.

“My wife being a teacher, she tells me all the time if a kid misses two or three days a month, they miss a key component of whatever lesson they’re learning. And if they miss that, they miss the building blocks,” Benjamin said.

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That learning loss can lead to poor grades and low standardized test scores. But that’s only the beginning. Hughes sat down for a candid discussion with three local professionals from education, criminal justice, and family services, who all share the common goal of getting Duval students back in the classroom.

“Studies show children that are chronically absent and are truant from school are more likely to experience substance use issues, alcoholism, mental health, it impacts employment, which impacts the economy. And then of course it leads to delinquency and being involved in the criminal justice system,” Assistant State Attorney and Smart Justice Coordinator Coral Messina said.

Long term effects that ultimately impact our entire community.

So how did we get here?

While the pandemic heightened several challenges local families were facing, Katrina Taylor, Director of School Behavioral Health for Duval County Public Schools said chronic absenteeism often has a common source.

“One word. Trauma, and that’s all-encompassing of parent issues. Community violence, homelessness, transience. And these are all traumas that our students are dealing with every single day. And so we often see that these are barriers to our students getting to school every single day,” Taylor said.

Sue Watson agrees. She is the director of the Exchange Club Family Center’s Parent Aide Program, which sends mentors to local homes to help parents and guardians learn tools to build stable households to prevent abuse and neglect.

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“Sometimes when we look at the parent and say, ‘OK, you’ve told us what your child needs, but what do you need?’ The parent or the caregiver will start to cry. No one looks at them, except for the shame. And blame them for not getting their child at school, when really they’re dealing with their own trauma. They’re dealing with their own, not being able to pay the bills or losing a job or the car broke down, or not having transportation to get their children where they need to go,” Watson said.

Chronic absenteeism is often more prevalent in economically disadvantaged communities.

State data revealed several Duval schools, particularly in Northwest Jacksonville, where more than 70% of students were reported chronically absent last school year.

Taylor said DCPS has systems in place to identify and prevent absenteeism, including targeted intervention.

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“We try to train and educate our school-based staff because we want to be as prevention-focused as possible. We truly believe being prevention-focused will help to reduce the number of issues we are seeing as a district,” Taylor said.

Taylor said if a student has five unexcused absences within a calendar month or 10 days within a 90-day period, parents are required to meet with the district Attendance Intervention Team, or AIT, where they work to determine what barriers are keeping the child out of school and what support the family needs.

If the child continues to miss school, Taylor said the response ramps up to include home visits, counseling, and social workers get involved.

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In cases of chronic absenteeism, several agencies and community partners join the AIT meeting including the Florida Department of Children and Families, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the State Attorney’s Office, the Exchange Club Family Center, and other nonprofits.

When asked about challenges and gaps in the current processes, Taylor said, “I would say that the major gap that we see is funding not having enough, individuals at the school level that can really help to address truancy like our truancy officers. Needing more of them to really go out and find these kids and help to remove barriers and go knock on doors.”

Taylor said there are currently 17 truancy officers for the more than 129,000 students in the district. She said their jobs will not be impacted by the district’s potential cuts as it works to tackle a massive budget gap. Since chronic absenteeism rates tend to be higher in impoverished communities, Taylor also said she thinks there should be policy change on the state or federal level.

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“I think that that should be a component that in order for you to stay in this housing or to receive this funding for food, that one thing you have to do is to send your child to school,” Taylor said.

“I think we certainly need more people to help with investigating,” Messina said. “At best, the children are at home watching TV, but at worst, they’re being abused and neglected by their caregivers, so when a child misses 30 days in a row, there’s really no one to figure that out.”

Messina said she would like to see a central entity accountable for overseeing truancy and chronic absenteeism, ideally on a city level.

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“That’s why having something like a truancy czar, for example, to kind of help lead and direct the intervention process, through multiple agencies might be a helpful solution,” Messina said.

Watson said there must be more community awareness and engagement.

“You see a mom that’s struggling, help them out. You see a family that needs help getting their children to school, be a good neighbor and help them get their children to school. ... “It’s a community issue, needing all the support we can to back up families and be there with families and to emphasize the importance of education and how it can get them out of their current situation if that’s not where they want to be.”

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Benjamin, who is in the process of launching the City Church at Highlands, said his church will be committed to doing everything it can to answer the call.

“It takes a village, and I really believe that we should be looking out for each other’s children because this truancy level doesn’t just affect that kid. It affects the entire community,” he said.

Since the idea of city-level intervention was introduced as another part of the potential solutions to address absenteeism, Action News Jax reached out to Mayor Donna Deegan’s office. A spokesperson sent the following statement:

“The truancy crisis is of great concern to Mayor Deegan. She has directed a team to work with Duval County Public Schools and community partners to create a public education and outreach campaign that encourages attendance going into the next school year. We’ll have more to share on that effort as August approaches.”

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To view statewide absentee data from the Florida Department of Education click here: Absent 21+ Days and Absent 10% or More Comparison, 2022-23 (Excel)

To view absentee data from the Florida Department of Education by school click here: Average Daily Attendance/Average Daily Membership by School, 2022-23 (Excel)

To see a dashboard of school data created by the University of Florida and the nonprofit Safe Schools for Alex, click here: https://www.safeschoolsforalex.org/fl-school-safety-dashboard/school-safety-dashboard-search/

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